Gazing at the Moon
By John Clinbrohf
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My grandfather used to have a ring with a demon trapped inside it. The
ring was silver and had a skull's face, just like the one the Phantom wore
in the Sunday comics. Grandpa said the skull's black eye sockets once held
tiny rubies like drops of blood, but they melted from the heat of the demon
within. Grandpa seldom wore it; usually it sat in an ashtray on the dining
room table, looking very much like an ordinary ring. I couldn't see the
demon. I had to take such things on faith because I had too much of my
grandmother's blood in me.
Occasionally, during one of the demon's rages, I could press the ring
to my ear and hear a faint ticking, the sound of the demon pounding on its
prison walls. To Grandpa, the sound was like someone pounding on a door, but
all I could hear was this faint ticking like a cricket at the bottom of a
well. I felt hopelessly retarded. Grandma, of course, claimed she heard
nothing at all.
Sometimes when I got up at night to use the bathroom, I'd pass the
dining room table, and the ring seemed to glow. If I stared at it for a
while, it would seem to move, to squirm like something covered with maggots.
Maybe I would have seen more if I'd kept looking, but I never did. That kind
of stuff scared the shit out of me.
Grandpa was always consulting with the ring, pestering it with
questions about the weather, and whether it was going to be a good year for
corn, and whether the price of hogs was going to rise any higher. I don't
know why he relied on the ring so much, since it gave him bad advice most
the time. The demon was either malicious or just plain lousy at forecasting
the future. I'm sure the farm would have long since gone under, but Grandma
was the one who really ran things. Grandpa did most the physical work, but
Grandma made all the decisions. They'd fight over what to do, but Grandma
would always win, and Grandpa would go off to sulk with his ring. I'd see
him sitting at the dining room table, holding a filterless Camel between his
right thumb and forefinger (the hay baler got the other three fingers)
asking the ring endless questions and flicking his cigarette into the
ashtray until the demon must have been suffocating beneath cigarette ash.
When the demon gave Grandpa bad advice, which was nearly every day, he
punished it in a variety of ways. He suspended it on a string over the
toilet and flushed, hoping to terrify it, or he dangled it above a candle
flame. Once he put it in the freezer and gloated for two or three days about
the demon's misery. "Listen to that bastard wail!" he'd say, "That'll teach
him about the feeder cattle market!"
The demon nearly escaped when Grandpa tried to punish it by burying it
in the back yard. When he went out to dig it up the next morning, he found
it had sunk straight down towards Hell. Fortunately, the ring left a
scorched trail in the earth, and by following this Grandpa was able to
locate it after several hours of furious digging. Enraged, Grandpa ran into
the house and threw the ring into the microwave. This was a mistake. The
demon absorbed all the microwave radiation and the the ring grew to three
times its previous size, fusing every circuit in the microwave and scorching
the whole northeast wall of the kitchen, not to mention igniting the
"My kitchen!" Grandma shrieked as she yanked the fire extinguisher
from the wall and sprayed the curtains. "My kitchen!" she screamed again,
hitting Grandpa in the chest. But Grandpa, for once, looked truly
remorseful. He stood with his head down. I think for that one second he saw
what Grandma had had to put up with for years, living with a man who
consulted with a demon on a daily basis.
That was the summer I was eleven. By the next summer, Grandpa had
changed. He began to be subject to the pull of the moon, as old people often
* * *
I'm not sure if it was somehow related to the microwave incident, but
that fall and winter Grandpa began to lose interest in everything, including
the enlarged ring. It sat unmolested in its ashtray throughout the winter
months as Grandpa sunk deep into depression. He lost all interest in the
farm, too. Grandma, who couldn't handle all the chores he suddenly was
neglecting, began selling off all the livestock. Grandpa never uttered a
word of protest. That scared Grandma. She started taking him around to
doctors, first the family doctor in Elnora, then specialists in Terre Haute
and Indianapolis. Our medicine cabinet began to fill up with various drugs
which seemed to have no effect on Grandpa at all, except for some carotene
pills which turned his skin orange for several days, making him look like a
vacant, white-haired carrot. Nothing helped, and by spring he had become
completely preoccupied with the moon.
Full moons were especially bad, but Grandpa was fascinated by the moon
even when it was just a sliver. He would sit in a rocking chair in the front
yard, gazing at the moon as it rose in the southeast and following it across
the sky until it set in the southwest. If we tried to make him go inside, he
would throw horrible tantrums, kicking and biting. We were afraid he'd hurt
himself, so we let him be.
I began sitting out there with him, trying to see what was so
captivating about the moon. If I gazed at it for about ten minutes, not
letting my eyes waver even a fraction, the moon would become brighter. At
the same time, the sky became blacker, the stars fading from my peripheral
vision until the moon was the only thing in the sky. I began to sense the
roundness of it--it began to look like a globe rather than a disk. It pulsed
with my heartbeat, and if I managed to keep staring for an hour or so, it
would slowly expand until it filled half the sky. It was very difficult, but
with practice I became better at it until one night I gazed from moonrise to
moonset. It became bigger than ever, filling the whole sky, and still it
expanded until I could see details on the surface, and suddenly gazing at
the moon was no longer difficult at all; I couldn't do anything but gaze at
it. I saw more and more detail. Oceans and continents first, then stark
mountains, black lakes, and ashen cities.
A city completely filled my vision, and I could clearly see each
building and street. Then I saw people. They all had their heads down and
were ceaselessly pacing the streets. They were the color of talc, and were
repulsively thin, their heads nodding heavily on their fragile necks. They
looked like dying lilies. Something about them and their decaying city made
me feel a familiar sadness, a faint echo of the grief I'd felt when I saw my
mother and father in their twin caskets.
One of them raised his eyes and saw me. His pupils were red instead of
black, his face white and hollow-cheeked. He offered me his hand. I tried to
reach him, and I felt myself slowly drawing closer until our fingers nearly
touched. A smile wrinkled his dry lips, revealing bright little teeth that
were as sharp as needles. But then something got in the way. A shadow passed
between us, and I fell away. The moon was setting, just a sliver of it
showing above the Kelso woods. I was overwhelmed by the odd sensation of
being back inside myself--there was something revolting about it. Nearby
there was an old man on his hands and knees, moaning and rocking, and it
took me a while to remember who he was or why he was crying.
* * *
After that experience, I lost all curiosity about the moon. As a
matter of fact, I stayed inside as much as possible when the moon was out.
And if Grandma insisted I go out to sit awhile with Grandpa, I first put a
hat on, pulling the brim down over my eyes, and I kept my hands on either
side of my face like blinders. I also stayed away from the dining room as
much as possible because lately it seemed I could hear faint laughter, just
a snickering whisper, whenever I walked past Grandpa's ring.
It was also about this time that I developed my compulsion to tap on
things to make sure they existed. I drummed on tabletops and walls with my
fingers, which wasn't really that unusual, but I was especially insecure
about the ground or floor beneath my feet, and was always having to lean
down to touch it. I still can't walk out of a house without leaning down to
touch the earth. Otherwise, how do I know I'm not stepping out onto nothing?
As for Grandpa, his condition steadily worsened. He became completely
withdrawn, never talking to us or answering our questions, but only mumbling
to himself from time to time. He lost weight, and this made him more subject
to the pull of the moon than ever before. Grandma was afraid for him to be
outside on windy nights because the slightest breeze threatened to knock him
over. One morning I found him asleep in his chair in the front yard, and
when I tried to wake him up, I was astonished to see I could lift him
easily. He was ridiculously light--even his shirt and shoes should have
weighed more than what I was holding. I let go of him, and for a second he
didn't even fall. It was as though he couldn't decide whether to sink or
rise or just hover there. Then he very slowly drifted toward the ground. I
took him by his shirtfront and carried him inside like a weightless
A short time later we almost lost Grandpa. I was on my way to bed when
I heard Grandma scream. I ran outside to see her jumping up in the air,
making a grab for Grandpa's feet, which were already far out of reach. He
was very slowly rising, drifting off a little to the northeast because of
the night breeze. He stood on the air just as casually as most people stand
on the ground, his hands in his pockets, his eyes fixed steadfastly on the
It looked hopeless, but Grandma, the most practical person I've ever
known, was a quick thinker. She sent me running to the shed for a
stepladder. We positioned it beneath Grandpa, and I started to climb up, but
Grandma pulled me back. "You hold it steady, Billy," she said, and clambered
up to stand precariously balanced on the top step. It was a ten foot ladder,
but it wasn't quite enough. Grandpa had drifted far enough to the northeast
to just barely be out of reach. Then she jumped. For about two seconds I was
sure she was jumping to her death, but she caught Grandpa by the ankles, and
that's what saved her. The pull of the moon was so strong that even
Grandma's earthy weight wasn't enough to bring them down at first. They
hovered overhead for a minute, drifting toward the house because of the
momentum provided by Grandma's leap. Then they began to settle toward the
ground, slowly at first, then faster and faster, until Grandma dropped like
a rock the last foot or so. I helped her pull Grandpa the rest the way down,
and we took him inside
* * *
It became very bad. Grandpa didn't talk or eat but only lay in bed all
day staring at the ceiling. Grandma agonized over whether to take him to a
doctor, but she knew they couldn't help him, that they'd only put him in the
hospital to die. He rapidly lost weight. Grandma could sometimes coax him to
eat a little bit of applesauce or mashed potatoes, but in the end she had to
feed him with a baby bottle. And he kept getting smaller.
We had a real problem keeping him from floating around the room and
bumping into things. For a while we were able to keep him in bed by
carefully covering him with a sheet and tucking it under the mattress. This
worked fine at first, but then Grandpa, as he became more and more
insubstantial, began to lose all physical existence. He was slippery to hold
onto--your hands kept going right through him--and if you covered him with a
sheet, he'd slowly emerge from it like a dead fish floating to the surface
of a pond. We had to just let him float around the room like a lost balloon.
For the time being the walls held him, but I think he would have escaped
soon after if Grandma hadn't accidentally discovered a way to hold him down.
In her desperation, Grandma overcame her distaste for the demon ring
and brought it upstairs in an attempt to get Grandpa's attention. She held
him (by this time he was less than two feet long) and shook the ring in
front of his eyes as though trying to amuse a baby with a rattle. Grandpa
showed no interest. Grandma tried to put the ring in his tiny hand.
Suddenly, Grandpa acquired a pound or two of weight, surprising Grandma so
much that she nearly dropped him. The ring rolled onto the floor, and
Grandpa became weightless again.
Grandma got her first real sleep in weeks that night. She slipped the
enlarged ring on Grandpa's wrist like a bracelet, and the next morning when
she awoke he was still on the bed beside her. He even looked as though he'd
acquired a bit more solidity. Over the next few days Grandpa continued to
improve, but we were only a week away from a full moon, and as the time drew
nearer, he became lighter again despite the ring.
The night of the full moon, he began to float again. The hand with the
ring was weighted down to the bed, but the rest of Grandpa's body floated
above it, straining to pull the ring across the room toward where the moon
was rising. The curtains were closed, but we knew it was out there, its dull
light drowning everything. We took turns holding him, waiting for moonset.
He had become slippery again, and as the moon's pull became stronger, we had
more and more difficulty keeping him in our hands. The ring was solid as
ever, but if we held onto it, Grandpa's hand would start to slip free, and
we had to try to catch him again. It was like trying to hold onto a ghost,
and I guess that was pretty much what we were doing.
Sometime after midnight, he escaped Grandma's hands and flew through
the window. Grandpa left no mark, but the ring burned a perfect round hole
through both the curtain and the windowpane. Grandma looked out the window
and sent me running for the stepladder again. Grandpa was in the apple tree
in the front yard. The ring had wedged in the fork between two branches, and
it was the only thing holding him back.
I held the stepladder again for Grandma. She stepped onto the
sturdiest branch of the apple tree and worked her way along it until she was
beneath Grandpa, but as always he was just barely out of reach, and just
then his hand slipped free of the ring. Grandma let out a cry of rage and
frustration that turned into a wail as she saw Grandpa drifting, rising
faster and faster, out of reach.
The ring fell, bouncing off tree branches, and I put my hand up and
caught it, just like that. It was really more as if it leaped into my hand
where it nestled like a dead thing filled with burning maggots. I looked
down to see it staring back at me with red blazing eyes, and for the first
time I heard it plainly, shrieking and laughing as though it were
simultaneously overcome with both anguish and mirth. I threw it away from
me, out into the cornfield beside our house, where I am sure it plunged
straight down to Hell.
I realized that I'd forgotten to touch the ground when I came outside,
and now I hunched down to do so. I covered my eyes to protect them from the
moonlight and waited for my weeping grandmother to come down from the tree.